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Whatever It Takes

I think about volleyball every day. Not because I necessarily want to, but I just can’t help it. It happens when I’m in class, walking between classes, trying to do homework, anytime really. It just happens. I get this serious scowl on my face, and everyone thinks I’m mad about something. My palms start to get sweaty. I start picturing myself on the court, maybe practicing or playing in the middle of a match. Usually I think of my most recent mistake. I fall into this semiconscious mode where my mind is on volleyball but I’m trying to focus on whatever it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I’m trying to hear what my professor is saying in lecture but I can’t make out the words anymore. I can’t read what’s on the screen—I don’t even see it. I’m trying to walk to my next class but I’m not paying attention to where I’m going, and all of a sudden I’m on the wrong side of campus. Some people, friends, tried to say “hi” to me along the way but I didn’t see them, much less hear them. I’m almost grateful when I snap out of my trance, but then I realize that being on the court subconsciously is better than not being there at all.

Volleyball is my first passion, my conviction. I have never seen myself as unusually athletic or uniquely talented, but I like to think that I work very hard. Back in high school, I used to push myself to my physical limits at every practice. There was no such thing as “taking it easy,” and there was no such thing as “impossible.” There was no ball that I couldn’t get to, no ball that I couldn’t hit harder, no attack that I couldn’t defend—there was nothing that anybody could do that I couldn’t do better. For me, as for many other athletes, the battle to be the best was and still is mental. There has never been a doubt in my mind that I am not physically capable, but I know that there are a million other physically capable people who want the same things that I do.

I have spent my career finding and learning from world-class coaches, players, and athletes. I’ve been coached by two Olympic gold medalists, and I’ve played alongside the players who are now being called “the future of USA volleyball”. I’ve represented the nation in competition and played against the top volleyball prospects from other countries many times. I’ve drawn inspiration from those athletes who have established themselves as the greats of their sport: Michael Jordan, Manny Pacquiao, and the Williams Sisters to name a few. Every athlete has heard the words, “to be a champion, you have to play and act like a champion.” But while I did my best to emulate the physicality, the technique, and the skills of the best players in the world, I never knew what to think when I stepped on the court.

In any post-game or post-match interview, the winners and the losers almost always say some version of the same thing. They say something about their “execution” and how well (or poorly) they did “the little things”. They might point out someone who performed exceptionally well and comment on how that player was “in the zone” and “just having one of those nights”. Then they wrap up the interview with some generic statement about tonight’s game being over and “getting right back in the gym” tomorrow. The greats are no exceptions—they give the same vague answers as every other athlete. But there must be some distinguishing factor, something that makes them the best. While their physical gifts are undeniable, I believe that what separates them is the cliché that is “mental toughness.” But what does mental toughness really mean? What goes on in the minds of these athletes that gives them the mental edge over their competition?

Everyone likes winning more than they like losing. No one likes to lose, but some people like winning and dislike losing more than others. For professional athletes, their livelihood depends on their ability to win. To do the most seemingly mundane tasks for a living—such as punching and getting punched, shooting a ball into a basket, or hitting a fuzzy yellow ball over a net thousands and thousands of times—takes a huge amount of passion. All professional athletes are physically dedicated to the task, and all professional athletes have dreams of being the best—winning that championship belt, holding up the winner’s trophy, standing atop the podium at the Olympics with a gold medal around the neck. Dreams are powerful, and I think having a dream is the first step to being successful. In her best-seller The Secret, Rhonda Byrnes makes heavy use of visualization as a tool to help people consciously focus all of their attention on achieving what they want most. In simpler terms, “your thoughts become things!” (Byrne 9). But while dreams are a powerful tool, I don’t think dreams are the driving factor in being successful—I think dreams are the sparks that start the fire. As an athlete, I dream of following in the footsteps of my coaches, to one day win Olympic gold and to be considered the best libero[1] in the world. These dreams are what get me in the gym every day, they are what keep me focused and wanting to improve. But when I’m on the court, in the thick of competition, the thought of awards or prizes doesn’t even cross my mind. The only thing on my mind is finding the most efficient way to utterly annihilate the six players I see across the net from me.

“Mental toughness is winning when you’re supposed to win and when you’re supposed to lose.”

I think a simple explanation of mental toughness is the ability to handle pressure. For athletes, it’s having the guts to not hold back when everything is on the line. If you’re Michael Jordan, it’s having the courage to take that three-point shot for the win with less than a second left on the shot clock.For Serena Williams, it’s blasting an ace down match point, unfazed at the possibility of losing. For Pacquiao, mental toughness is getting up after being down for the count in the fight to defend his Welterweight title. Mental toughness is winning when you’re supposed to win and when you’re supposed to lose. It’s what makes a champion a champion. These are the results of being mentally tough, the rewards of being able to withstand the pressure to perform. The more interesting question, then, is: Where does mental toughness come from?

In one of his most famous quotes, Michael Jordan says: “I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” (Nike). In his career, Michael Jordan won three consecutive NBA championships, retired, and then came out of retirement to win another three consecutive NBA championships. To this day, Jordan is widely regarded as the best basketball player in the history of the sport. And yet, in 1978, Michael Jordan was sent to the JV roster of his high school basketball team while Leroy Smith, one of Jordan’s good friends, was put on the varsity team. Although sophomores usually didn’t make the varsity roster, their coach, Pop Herring, made an exception that year because they needed the height of the 6’7” Smith. But Jordan didn’t see it that way—the fact that he was on the JV roster while another sophomore, friend or not, made the varsity roster only added insult to injury. Jordan would go on to become a “world-class…magician at converting real and imagined insults into the rocket fuel that made him fly” (Lake).

This isn’t such a surprising phenomenon; in fact, if you look at photos of Olympic athletes standing on the podium, the bronze medalist often looks happier than the silver medalist. Although the silver medalist finished with better results than the bronze medalist did, the silver medalist finished their Olympic journey with a loss, and what’s more is that they were only one match, one play, one point, one stroke, maybe one fraction of a second away from winning that gold medal. This is the curse of being an athlete: there is only one victor at every competition, yet every competitor believes that he will emerge as the champion. There is no other option, because an athlete without belief has already lost. But each loss, each failure, always induces the haunting sensation of having every second of pain, every drop of sweat, every ounce of belief put into making ourselves better amount to absolutely nothing in a matter of seconds.

In my opinion, the best athletes are also the most competitive athletes, and I think that competitive drive directly correlates with mental toughness. It’s whoever wants to win more, and I think those who want to win more are also those who have lost more, or at least those who have felt like they have lost more. Consider the case of the Williams sisters: Venus and Serena dominated women’s tennis in the early 2000s. They met in four consecutive grand slam finals, beginning with the 2002 French Open and ending with the 2003 Australian Open. They are the two winningest champions in the Open Era[2] with the greatest longevity, as they have continued to dominate the sport for over a decade since their professional debuts. Yet, Serena Williams, the younger of the two sisters, has had the more illustrious career. Since winning the US Open in 1999, Serena has won sixteen more grand slam titles, propelling her to fifth on the all-time grand slam champions list. In 2013, Serena had arguably her most successful season, boasting an astounding record of 78-4 and regaining the world number one ranking for the sixth time in her career, becoming the oldest female to hold the number one ranking in the Open Era. Many consider Serena as the greatest of all time, including the likes of Chris Evert and John McEnroe. Serena Williams, at thirty-two years of age, is by no means in her physical prime anymore. And yet, she continues to dominate the sport, still able to outlast, outrun, and outhit all of her opponents.

It would seem that Serena has lost very little in her career, having won a grand slam at the age of seventeen. But I believe Serena began cultivating her competitive drive long before her professional debut. As juniors, Venus and Serena used to regularly practice and compete against each other, and Venus, gifted with a tall, athletic frame and natural power, would almost always win (Venus and Serena). Serena saw herself in the shadow of her older sister, similarly, I’d imagine, to how Jordan saw himself in the shadow of Leroy Smith. Throughout their professional careers, Serena and Venus have met in eight grand slam finals, and Serena has won six of those eight meetings. Serena has always been ruthless in winning and vicious in losing, even when playing Venus. She has said on many occasions that she “hates losing more than she likes winning” (Fendrich). I believe Serena used her early losses to Venus just as Michael Jordan used to recall Leroy Smith whenever he needed to push himself to work harder (Lake). And it’s not only the defeats from Venus that Serena uses to fuel for success: In 2004, a seventeen-year-old Maria Sharapova defeated the then-number one Serena at Wimbledon, a highly-publicized victory that marked the rise of the young Russian phenom. Serena did not take loss lightly, and she has since defeated Sharapova in every single meeting since the beginning of 2005. The series stands at 16-2 in Serena’s favor.

Just as the great Serena Williams and Michael Jordan both experienced failure early on, I believe that those who fail early begin to cultivate their competitive drive, their will to succeed, earlier than those who have not experienced failure. And I believe that being so close to success, so close to what each wanted so badly for themselves, and failing early gave Jordan and Williams an edge going into their professional careers. Ultimately, I think the strength of one’s mental toughness is directly correlated to how badly one wants to achieve something. And often times the most mentally tough people are those who have failed at the most critical moments just before reaching their goals.

“I remember sitting in front of my computer reading and rereading the results, just to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating.”

In my career as a volleyball player, I have also found that failure is a necessary ingredient for success. Early on, I found that I most enjoyed the defensive aspects of volleyball and that I had a natural talent as a defender. In 2008, I was in my second year of playing competitive volleyball, and I was 13-years-old playing libero in the 16s division. I had dreams of following in the footsteps of my gold-medalist coaches, to become the best libero in the world, never mind the fact that I understood little about the intricacies of the position. That year, I tried out for the USA High Performance Pipeline, a program designed to streamline talented volleyball players to the national team. I remember sitting in front of my computer reading and rereading the results, just to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating. I had been selected to the Select A1 program, the top forty players in the nation in my age group.

The next year, I had my first taste of failure. I joined the 17s team as a 14-year-old, competing with and against high school juniors as a freshman. This was an exceedingly competitive and talented team. Five of the six starting players went on to play at top NCAA Division I programs. For the first time, I had to compete for my starting spot. Being hard-nosed and stubborn, I pushed myself to my physical and mental capacity: I practiced after practice, I studied the game tape, and I immersed myself in all things volleyball. But my lack of experience and physical development were too much to overcome, and I went from being a starter to a benchwarmer. To make matters worse, I tried out for High Performance again that year, and I was selected to the A2 squad, the tier of players just below the A1 level. It felt like a fall from glory, and my dreams slowly turned into a crushing pressure to succeed.

As with any sport, at the highest level you meet people bred to play their sport, like the Williamses were for tennis. At High Performance, you meet people with famous volleyball players as parents, people who grew up playing volleyball since they were old enough to walk, and people who are volleyball prodigies. It’s often a combination of two, and sometimes it’s a combination of all three. I didn’t have volleyball parents; I had parents who wanted me to excel at math. I didn’t grow up playing volleyball; I grew up practicing multiplication tables and working through math textbooks over the summer. And I for sure didn’t consider myself a volleyball prodigy. Prodigies don’t get benched; they start. Prodigies don’t find themselves at the A2 level; they make the A1 teams.

In hindsight, politics may have played a role in my struggles. Especially in volleyball, trying to determine who is a better defender is an extremely subjective process, due to the lack of statistics and the number of intangible factors that go into playing defense. But, as a 14-year-old, I was blind to these concepts. Failure, regardless of its causes, is failure, and all I knew was that I was failing.

I continued to struggle through 2010, my sophomore year in high school. I had worked myself to the point where waking up in the morning included taking an extra five minutes lying still in bed to allow my body and my joints to warm up because they were so worn from all the training I was doing. I had resigned myself to being another one of those athletes who was too weak to shoulder the pressure of becoming great.

“It reminded me that failure is only permanent if I let it be permanent.”

I have always believed that success requires a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, and I was lucky enough that year to get another chance to represent the nation in competition at High Performance. I had spent almost two years standing on the sidelines, 15 feet away from the court, watching someone else play my position. It had been so long since I’d been given the opportunity to compete, and stepping back on the court reminded me of why I fell in love with playing libero in the first place. It reminded me that failure is only permanent if I let it be permanent. It reminded me of the player who saw failure as an insult and a challenge and would always come back ten times stronger after every setback—it reminded me that I was still that player.

When I came into MIT, I had the opportunity to be the starting libero on the varsity men’s volleyball team. I knew what it was like to not get opportunities, to feel like I had let opportunities slip through my fingers. I knew what it was like to second guess myself, to feel like nothing I did was enough. I knew what it was like to feel out of place. I knew what it was like to be desperate. I knew what it felt like to fail. For so long, I believed that I could outdo the players who were getting opportunities that I wanted, and now I wanted nothing more than a chance to prove my talent. I played with a vengeance, clawing to keep every ball alive because that was my way of erasing any doubt that I or anyone else ever had about my abilities. I was on a mission to make myself known, and in my freshman campaign, I set four Institute records. I became the first freshman and defensive player in MIT history to be named an AVCA Division III 1st-Team All-American, and I was named ECAC Libero of the Year. But looking back on that season, the only things I remember are the points at which I made a mistake—points when I showed weakness and gave others reason to doubt me. And it’s not just this past season—I can recall every mistake that I’ve ever made on the court in the form of an instant replay in my mind. It’s these moments that flash through my head as I sit in lecture or walk to class. These are the points when I failed, the points when I was so close, just one step, one split second, one stretch away from keeping the ball off of the ground, but failed.

In my biased opinion, the libero is the most mentally taxing position in volleyball. Liberos are put in a situation where all the odds are against them, but they are expected to succeed. When the other team attacks the ball, they do so with every intention of preventing the ball from coming back over to their side of the net. But the libero’s job is to make that play happen, to do whatever it takes to get in the way of that ball before it hits the floor. There is no time to worry about pain or to feel discouraged because playing libero is hard or to be angry about making a mistake on the last play—there is only time to react. I think the libero is the only position where you fail more than you succeed, and I have failed more times than I care to count. When I think back on my career thus far, my successes are short glimmers in a horizon of failures. My memories of making High Performance, of winning championships, of being named an All-American, and of all the other milestones in my career are overshadowed by my memories of all the times when I was so close to winning but lost, of all the times I’ve been runner-up, of the times when all I could do was watch the game from the bench, and of every single time I’ve missed a dig down match point. These are the replays I find myself caught in, where I’m on the court and all I can do is watch the ball go past me as I fight myself to run faster, to do something, anything, to save that ball. One taste of absolute defeat was enough for me to fuel myself from ever having to experience that again. I can only imagine what Michael Jordan, Serena and Venus, and the other all-time greats remember when they look back on their careers.

It seems counterintuitive, but I think mental toughness is having the courage to take chances. My worst failures, the ones that stick out in my mind the most, are the ones when I felt helpless and powerless, when I didn’t fight back. To me, winning and losing are two sides of the same coin, and I decide which side I finish on. In my eyes, playing it safe is the same as being too scared to go after an opportunity, and if I’m going to lose, I want to lose on my terms. As for the great athletes, I think they make their own answers and they play on their terms. Their mental toughness comes from having been on the other side of winning, knowing all too well what happens when they don’t compete. But they don’t fold under that added pressure—they play harder. They fight for every point as if their life is on the line, because, for them, there is no other option: The only option is to win.

 

Works Cited

Byrne, Rhonda. The Secret. New York: Atria, 2006. Print.

Fendrich, Howard. “Wimbledon 2013: Serena Williams Eyes 17th Major.” The Big Story. Associated Press, 22 June 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Lake, Thomas. “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?” Editorial. Sports Illustrated. 12 Jan. 2012: n. pag. Cable News Network. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Nike. “Failure”. Advertisement. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

 


[1]  The libero was introduced to international volleyball in 1998, adding a new dimension of strategy to the game. The libero, who is supposed to be the best passer and defender on the team, is allowed to enter and leave the court without costing the team a substitution. In exchange, the libero is not allowed to attack the ball. The libero is in charge of the first contact, the player who keeps the ball off of the ground at all costs.

[2]  The Open Era of tennis began in 1968 when amateur and professional players were allowed to compete at the same tournaments. Before, professional players were not allowed to play specific events, including the Grand Slam tournaments. The Open Era allowed all players to have an opportunity to make a living as a tennis player.

Brendan Chang’s Author’s Note

Brendan Chang is a member of the class of 2016 studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Brendan began playing volleyball almost nine years ago in his home state of Maryland. In his essay "Whatever It Takes", Brendan examines the stories of a few of history's greatest athletes in an attempt to give context to the term "mental toughness". Brendan uses his own experiences to provide another perspective in his investigation of the realities athletes face in their struggles to realize their maximum potential. At MIT, Brendan is a member of the men's varsity volleyball team and the Chinese Students Club. In his free time, Brendan enjoys exploring new restaurants, spending time with friends and family, and cooking.